Night Coming Tenderly, Black- Dawoud Bey Exhibit
By Sally Kim
Dawoud Bey is an African-American photographer renowned for his large-scale color portraits of adolescents and marginalized subjects. He was born in 1953, Queens, New York City, New York. His recent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago features his works in Cleveland, Ohio that are intended to evoke the sensory and spatial experience of fugitive slaves moving through the darkness of a pre-Civil War Ohio landscape. The photographs reminisce the past through a contemporary moment; they’re supposed to invoke a historical sentiment as it coexists in the present. Bey says, “They [the photographs] are loosely based on facts as best we know them, and otherwise imagined. These pictures are not meant to be documentary in any conventional sense.”
Bey’s photographs span the time from the Civil War (1861-1865) to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Photographs from these periods of racial tension are accompanied by images of the African American community’s fight for freedom and the violent and unjust responses that barred them from their rights. According to Bey, the straight landscape images are “to be imagined to carry the traces of fraught historical interactions. By contrast, vernacular photographs are meant to show African Americans claiming space to live as they wish, to the degree this was possible.”
Bey is known for his series of photographs featuring the same landscape, similar to Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” series, featuring haystacks in different seasons and times of the day. Bey’s series is titled, “Farmhouse and Picket Fence.” In contrast to Monet, however, Bey features the same farmhouse in different angles, first capturing it in a 45-degree angle eastward, with the picket fence surrounding the solitary house. Second, he captures the backyard of the farmhouse, mainly capturing the tree that blocks the view to the back of the farmhouse. Lastly, he captures the same backside except zooming his camera closer to the opening next to the tree as to get a clear view of the farmhouse and abandoning the picket fence.
His motive for capturing this series is to embody the experience of moving through the landscape while reaching the Underground Railroad, what it might have looked like for the slaves during the nighttime (thus the black and white) as they were fleeing from bondage and submission. His exhibit title is a direct reference to Langston Hughes’ poem. In an interview, Bey said, “I thought about that idea of blackness and the blackness of space, the blackness of the subject, and this blackness that he described – “Night coming tenderly / Black like me” – that this black space could be a place of tender embrace that’s moving these fugitive slaves along the path to freedom, across Lake Erie and Canada.”
Dawoud Bey’s exhibit is open until April 14, 2019 to the public at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute ticket is free for anyone of 17 years of age and younger, if they reside in Chicago and show the admissions desk their high school student ID and any proof of their birthdate.